Hamelin Pool: the key to our past

Thursday 16 June, 2016

Over billions of years, a complex interaction between climate and environment at Hamelin Pool has created the miracle of ‘living fossils’ called stromatolites. These extraordinary natural monuments contain microbes similar to those found in 3,500-million-year-old fossils – the earliest record of life on Earth.

Seagrass beds in Hamelin Pool. Photo by Cineport Media.
Seagrass beds in Hamelin Pool. Photo by Cineport Media.
At first glance, the rocky formations dotted along the shoreline of Hamelin Pool appear utterly unspectacular. Something you might see at any beach in Australia. Yet the importance of these seemingly innocuous rocky groupings – known as stromatolites – is profound. Hidden within their complex microbial structure are the microbes that generated the oxygen required to make Earth habitable to human life. These stromatolites are the earliest record of life on our planet.

The fact that we’ve got this window to life on Earth billions of years ago, makes Hamelin pretty much the most phenomenal place on the planet.
Dr Erica Suosaari with stromatolites on the Hamelin Pool shore. Photo by Greg Sousaari.
Dr Erica Suosaari with stromatolites on the Hamelin Pool shore. Photo by Greg Sousaari.

When it comes to describing the significance of Hamelin Pool and its estimated 100 million stromatolites, Bush Heritage Science Fellow Dr Erica Suosaari doesn’t mince words.

Stromatolites are the first record of life. They’re evidence that bacteria existed 3.5 billion years ago. The fact that we’ve got this window to life on Earth billions of years ago, makes Hamelin pretty much the most phenomenal place on the planet.

Remarkably, Hamelin Pool is one of only two places on Earth where marine stromatolites exist and there is nowhere comparable for the sheer number and variety of stromatolites found at Hamelin.

Stromatolites at sunset.
Stromatolites at sunset.
A sandbar across the entrance of the bay makes Hamelin Pool twice as salty as normal seawater. The unique conditions have fostered these ancient stromatolites, which are considered the best example of their kind in the world.

Erica is involved in ground-breaking research with national and international universities, looking at the DNA of the microbial communities that build stromatolites.

Erica’s work also includes categorising the stromatolites by their various shapes – some of which have never before been recorded – and used these categories to map the stromatolites. Erica’s research has contributed new insight to global understanding of the environment in which they formed.

Stomatolites in Hamelin Pool are created by mats of microbes, just as they were billions of years ago. Photo by Erica Suosaari.
Stomatolites in Hamelin Pool are created by mats of microbes, just as they were billions of years ago. Photo by Erica Suosaari.
Erica is also looking at how the environment around Hamelin Pool can contribute to the health of the stromatolites. Erica’s research into factors such as how grazing and runoff affect the stromatolites, may make a difference to how we manage Hamelin Station Reserve.

“The more we find out about Hamelin Pool the more we find we really don’t know that much,” said Erica. “It’s really critical that we study the stromatolites now because if sea levels rise, water of normal marine salinity will flood the basin and that may spark the destruction of the entire system – the uniqueness of the current environment and the quality of the water are what allows the stromatolites to remain unchanged. Stromatolites are the key to the past. If they’re gone we will never be able to understand that. The time to act is now.”

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